The Six-Day-Plus-Forty-Year War
Reflections on the Fortieth Anniversary of the Six-Day War
In the world of 20th century logic, the barber’s paradox is a classic:
The village barber (who is male) would shave everyone who lived or worked in the village, who did not shave himself. Who shaved the barber?
The barber, on the one hand, must shave himself because he worked in the village. On the other hand, he couldn’t do the shaving, because he only shaved those who did not shave themselves.
There is a logical solution to this paradoxical mess. The answer: there is no such barber! Remember this solution: There is no barber.
A Brief History to the Longest Short War
The first shots of the Six-Day War were fired on June 5, 1967. The story of the war begins well before then.
By the late 1950s, Israel began work on its ambitious National Water Carrier project that would bring the fresh water of the Kinneret (Sea of Galilee) down to the arid but fertile soil of the Negev in the South. Arab nations—Syria in particular—were quite upset by this development, and began guerilla operations to halt the project. Their efforts were not especially effective. In 1964, Syria came up with a different tack. They began to divert the headwaters of the Jordan River, which were within Syrian territory.
Israel could not attack the diversion work without it being seen internationally as cross-border aggression. (The Jewish State had been slapped diplomatically by the U.S. following its coordinated invasion of Egypt in 1956, with England and France, in order to keep the Suez Canal open. It could not risk a similar crisis.) It hit upon a clever method, by sending tractors into the ‘no-man’s land’ that had been left unsettled on the border between Israel and Syria following the 1948 War of Independence. Syria shot at the tractors cultivating the disputed land, and then Israel retaliated by hitting at the water diversion equipment.
Within a year, Syria basically abandoned its Jordan River diversion program, but the border skirmishes did not let up. By the middle of 1964, the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) had been started by Yasir Arafat, and with Syrian (and Egyptian) financial and logistical assistance. PLO raids on northern border villages and kibbutzim became a regular fact of life in 1965-66.
The PLO was clearly launching its raids from Syrian and Jordanian territory. Israel’s response was both air strikes on PLO bases, and warnings that Syria, in particular, would be held responsible and thus liable to military attack on Damascus itself. Syria, for its part, took the threat seriously, and felt that it was taking the brunt of the confrontation with the Jewish State on behalf of all Arab nations. Egypt received most of the criticism for maintaining the status quo with Israel that had been in place since the Sinai campaign of 1956. A U.N. Expeditionary (peacekeeping) Force (UNEF) had patrolling the border since.
In December 1966, Egypt signed a defense pact with Syria, but the skirmishes—PLO raids and Israeli retaliatory strikes—did not let up. In early 1967, Syria began to claim—backed up by the USSR—that Israel was massing troops along its northern border. Israel categorically denied the charge. (Syria’s claim was indeed false. Was this due to faulty Russian intelligence, or more mischievous intentions?) An air battle in April, in which Syria lost a number of MIG fighters, plus some Israel leadership chest-thumping on Independence Day in May, reinforced Syria’s fears that an invasion was imminent.
Political pressure mounted on Egypt. What was Nasser going to do as a result of the recently-signed defense pact? On May 15, he sent two army divisions into the previously de-militarized Sinai, and the next day, he ordered the U.N. troops to leave. A week later, Egypt announced it was closing the Straits of Tiran, thus closing off Israel’s southern sea route from the port of Eilat. Israel first turned to the U.S. for support, as it had indicated to Israel it would have unfettered shipping access in return for its withdrawal (along with Britain and France) in the 1956 campaign. The U.S., for various reasons, could not help.
On May 30, Egypt signed a defense treaty with Jordan putting King Hussein’s forces under Egyptian command, and began to move troops onto Jordanian territory. For Israel, this was the last straw. In the early morning hours of June 5, the Israeli air force attacked air bases in Egypt, Syria and Jordan.
Four Days Plus Two
The attack absolutely neutralized the Arab air forces. Israel had complete freedom in the skies as it mobilized its ground forces particularly against the Egyptian army massed in the Sinai. Even as it was being routed on the first day of battle, Radio Cairo began broadcasting reports of great Egyptian victories! On the strength of these reports, Jordan began shelling Jerusalem and overran a U.N. camp on the border between East (Arab) and West (Israeli) Jerusalem. Syria, for its part, mounted an attack on a northern kibbutz that was quickly repulsed.
On June 6, with the Egyptian army mostly in retreat, Israel started a three-prong campaign through the West Bank. By the end of the day, Egyptian and Jordanian forces were experiencing a rout. The U.N. Security Council started to debate a cease-fire resolution on that day. When, on June 9, Egypt, Jordan and Syria pressed for a halt to hostilities, a resolution was voted on. Israel already had control of the Sinai Peninsula as far as the Canal, and all Jordanian territory west of the Jordan River.
Syria, following its initial unsuccessful raid on the first day of the war, had essentially stopped fighting. After being spurred to action by the Radio Cairo pronouncements, the government learned from Soviet sources that the reverse was true. Troops remained billeted in camps well north of the border with Israel, but artillery fire continued to rain down from positions on the Golan Heights. With the U.N. cease-fire resolution in place, the Israeli cabinet engaged in an intense debate about what do with Syrian emplacements on the Heights. On June 10, General Moshe Dayan ordered an attack on Syria, and within two days, the Golan Heights had been cleared of its “Maginot Line” set of bunkers and fortifications. The Six-Day War was over.
How Everything Went Wrong
Hindsight is a powerful vision. The Israeli victory over the armed forces of four nations (Iraq had forces stationed in Jordan) in functionally three days of fighting, that led to the reunification of Jerusalem, a five-fold expansion in territory, and a doubling of its population, seems both remarkable and inevitable. Since 1948, Israel had proven to be a superior fighting force in military discipline, technical accomplishment and strategic vision. Although having much larger forces, no individual front-line army could match up with Israel’s. Further, the years between 1949 and 1967, gave ample evidence that the Arab nations were quite incapable of forging the political and military unity necessary to mount a potentially successful attack on the Jewish State.
While there was a considerable amount of rhetoric boasting the Arab intent of driving the Israelis ‘into the sea,’ the evidence regarding Egyptian, Jordanian and Syrian military actions in late 1966 through May ’67, indicates that none of these nations actually wanted to go to war. Egypt, particularly, with the largest army and population, was leery of a full-scale military encounter. Throughout all the low level fighting—guerilla raids and retaliations—that inflamed Israel’s borders with Syria and northern Jordan from 1964-66, Egypt kept its own lengthy boundary, including the Gaza population, quiet. It was prodded into a defense pact, first with Syria, and then with Jordan, by pressures mounted by Arab countries, and by its own self-image as the leader of the Arab world.
Syria and Jordan were beset more by internal pressures of displaced Palestinian populations and domestic sympathizers. Their leadership knew that they could hardly confront Israel directly—Syria’s complete failure to halt or appreciably slow down Israel’s National Water Carrier project in the late 50s, early 60s, was ample proof of that—but neither could they do nothing. The support and encouragement of the PLO was thus mostly a domestic policy rather than some serious effort at driving away the Jews.
No nation, individually or collectively—including the State of Israel—wanted to have a war in 1967. Yet, step by step, as a result of national pride, bravado, poor intelligence and wishful thinking, war came.
Ironies abound. Water precipitated the initial tension, specifically between Israel and Syria, but the causa belli were the actions of Egypt in removing U.N. troops and closing the Straits of Tiran. Nasser, however, never put his armed forces into an offensive posture. Up until June 5, he did not actually want to engage in a hot war. He nonetheless backed Israel into a corner. The status quo that had provided stability—if not real peace—in the Gulf of Eilat for the previous ten years, had been completely upset by unilateral moves on Egypt’s part. Egypt was not going to back down. The U.S., England, France and other interested parties were not going risk military personnel or diplomatic capital in forcing Nasser to do so. Israel was either going to have to accept the loss of Eilat as a port, or push the Egyptian army out of the Sinai.
In the end, Egypt lost the entire Sinai Peninsula, and Jordan, all of its holding west of the river. Syria, who had pulled both Jordan and Egypt into the confrontation, lost the least amount in territory and personnel.
… And Israel
Then there is Israel. The Jewish State clearly did not want war. It did want peace within the status quo of the 1949 Armistice. This meant secure shipping lanes through the Straits of Tiran, and the opportunity to develop internally through such projects as the water pipeline from the Galilee to the Negev. The creation of the PLO in 1964, did indeed present a new problem. Israel’s response could be characterized as compellence (the opposite of deterrence): it would retaliate tit-for-tat when attacked, but would also threaten to harm Syrian and Jordanian national interests, if their governments did not act to restrain military activity.
While Israel was pulled into full force military action by Egypt’s maneuvers, we can wonder just how long the low-level conflict on the northern border could continue without ultimately blowing up into a war. Syria and Jordan, while hardly wanting a direct military confrontation with Israel, could not pressure Palestinian guerillas without suffering serious political consequences. Israel, for its part, could threaten strikes at Damascus for only so long before its own integrity was questioned. Perhaps war within a few years of June, 1967 was inevitable.
The outcome of some other war would have been different, but I am confident (once more, basking in the glow of hindsight) that Israel would have experienced a victory. I can remember the months and weeks leading up to the war, and taking seriously, along with everyone else, the incessant Arab claims about destroying the Jewish State. It was nerve-wracking and not-a-little upsetting. Even when the war was over in a flash, the results seemed to be mostly miraculous, rather than what they obviously were: empty belligerent rhetoric from Arab nations who could not possibly defeat the Israeli armed forces. Nasser was quite right in his desire to avoid a full-scale confrontation. He simply got swept, almost irresistibly, into a disastrous escalation.
The war came, and within five days Israel’s territory increased five-fold, its population virtually doubled. Even amid the shouts of celebration and the powerful experience of being able to touch the Western Wall in the old city of Jerusalem, many Israelis recognized that the war’s outcome was a mixed blessing. On the positive side, disaster had been averted, Jerusalem had been reunited, and the territories gave the Jewish State ‘strategic depth.’ It would be much harder to enemy troops to threaten the population centers of Tel Aviv, Haifa and Jerusalem.
The negative side was both obvious and subtle. The obvious disability that arose from victory were the few million Palestinian Arabs residing in the West Bank and Gaza Strip (the Sinai and Golan had small populations of Syrians, Egyptians, Druse and Bedouin). In a flash, Israel had become an occupying power.
The immediate response among Israel’s leadership was to negotiate a restoration of the territories (with some revisions) back to Egypt, Jordan and Syria, in return for a secure and stable peace. The concept was reinforced in the UN Security Council’s famous Resolution 242. The idea was virtually obvious; its implementation virtually impossible.
Following the war, the Arab nations wanted to have their lands restored, but they wanted to have them brought back in the fashion in which they were lost—by the sword. Negotiations were out of the question; sheer human pride dictated this attitude. The Arab nations, on the other hand, realized that they did not have the wherewithal, either in war technology or political unity, in order to mount a successful counterattack. The result was a paralytic condition: neither negotiations nor war. Israel’s great bargaining chip just sat there, becoming an increasingly heavy burden. If, in June 1967, the scorecard looked like Israel had won and the Arabs had lost, over the next few years, it would become increasingly clear that everyone had lost.
Still in the Wilderness
Forty years resonates as a time span in Jewish thought and tradition. It represents the sojourn in the wilderness, the number of years in which the Israelites were delayed in being able to settle in the Land promised them following their liberation from Egypt. Forty years have now elapsed since the lightning victory of the Six-Day War, and Israel appears to be nowhere near out of the wilderness. It is possible to argue that Middle East is no closer to some peaceful settlement than they were on the eve of June 5, 1967. Let us take inventory. What has changed since that fateful war? What has not?
I believe, on the whole, Israel is closer to being out of the wilderness than it was in June 1967. Although militarily sound and self-sufficient forty years ago, its diplomatic status in the world was mostly uncertain. It was a socialist country that was mostly shunned by the Soviet Union and the socialist world. Its relations with the US and Western nations was not especially firm, and obviously it had no relations at all with any Arab state. Today, not only does Israel have formal diplomatic relations with Egypt, Jordan and Morocco, but most of the world’s nations—including Russia, China and Saudi Arabia—have affirmed their acceptance and support for the Jewish State, at least within the 1967 ‘Green Line’ borders.
After forty years, therefore, the 1967 borders of Israel have become the de facto internationally recognized boundaries of the Jewish State. Moreover—and this is a critical point—many Arabs, both leadership and the general populace, no longer feel the need to win back the territories lost through war! Back in 1967, Israelis could imagine in the euphoria of their stunning victory that peace was at hand. This was fantasy. It is fantasy no longer.
Yet, the way out of the wilderness remains distant and uncertain. Over a forty year period, attitudes change, and sometimes harden. There have been a number of significant and complicating trends that continue to make the establishment of a stable solution daunting.
Politics By Other Means: The Apparent Role of Religion
Both Zionism and Palestinian nationalism are secular movements. Following the Six-Day War, a Shofar was sounded at Jerusalem’s Western Wall, and prayers of praise to God could be heard throughout the land, but the everyday considerations of the Israeli government (which was Labor/Socialist at the time), and most of the population were distant from traditional Jewish practice and thought.
From the outset, Israelis moved into occupied territories. Among the early settlements were the Jewish Quarter of the old city of Jerusalem, a region southeast of Jerusalem called the Etzion Bloc, that had to be abandoned in 1948, and a string of military bases along the Jordan River. Settlers also moved up on to the Golan Heights and into border areas in the Gaza Strip and in the northeast Sinai. All of these settlements reflected historical or strategic concerns. The only settlement that clearly represented a religiously motivated reclaiming of the land was a small group that moved into Hebron.
The first significant change in settlement patterns occurred in 1976, when a religious community, Gush Emunim [Bloc of the Faithful], established a village in the north-central region of the West Bank. Gush members understood themselves as being the new wave of Zionist pioneers, now completing the work of the old wave that came to the land at the beginning of the century. They framed their activity in classic religious Zionist language; that the taking of God’s promised land was a vital step toward the coming of the Messiah.
The Labor government at the time voiced its disapproval of the new settlement, but chose politically to do nothing. A year later, after 29 years of continuous rule, Labor control of the government gave way to a right-wing coalition led by Menachem Begin. Begin was no more religiously observant than his Labor Party predecessors, but he was also less ideologically opposed to traditional Jewish religious thought. Further, as a matter of political philosophy, Begin’s Likud Party did not consider the territories as bargaining chips, but rather as land legitimately won in a war it did not seek to fight in the first place. The attitudes of the new ruling coalition and Gush Emunim were aligned, and settlement in the West Bank and Gaza began to grow. New neighborhoods were built on West Bank territory surrounding Jerusalem.
On the Palestinian side, the PLO strove to maintain a fundamentally secular approach. The coalition of clans and political sects that formed the PLO, and its deliberative federation, the Palestine National Congress (PNC) included Christians as well as Muslims. The proclaimed goal was a secular, democratic State in which no people—Christian or Muslim, Arab or Jew—would have special privileges. Indeed, throughout the Arab Middle East, religion was kept on the margins in favor of cultural-linguistic nationalism. Muslim entities, such as the Muslim Brotherhood, were often severely suppressed.
The first indication of change took place in Lebanon, where a Maronite Catholic minority (but a plurality of all religious sects) was challenged regarding its political dominance. Explicit religious sensitivities—particularly on the part of a combined Sunni and Shi’ite Muslim coalition—fomented civil war in 1976. The major change, however, took place with the Iranian Revolution in 1979. With the fall of the Shah, an assertive (Shi’ite) Muslim Republic was formed, in which religious leadership (ayatollahs and mullahs) would have a privileged position of influence. Political Islam had arrived.
Islamization has now affected the entire Arab world. While only Iran (non-Arab) is explicitly Islamic, every Arab government has had to express Muslim bona fides, and work to make peace with Islamist elements. Among the Palestinians, Islamic Jihad and Hamas have become influential players within the community. Hamas, of course, took a majority of seats in the January 2006 Palestine Authority (PA) elections, although the Presidency has remained in principally secular hands.
The Israel-Palestine conflict has therefore been increasingly determined by opposing forms of religious nationalism: a predominantly Orthodox Jewish settler movement and the Islamist Hamas and jihadi movements. Fired by religious certainty and self-righteousness, they have posited maximalist solutions and made compromise appear to be more difficult.
The Sword and the Dove
Has religion been introduced into the Israel-Palestine confrontation in the years since the Six-Day War, and with it have opportunities for a stable, just and peaceful settlement receded? The answer to this contention is both yes and no. It is evidently clear that religious expression has played a greater role in the Israel-Palestine debate in recent years. One, however, must ask why this is the case? Further, why does the religious impulse seem to be associated with hardening of positions rather than with looking for areas for reconciliation?
There is no evidence that devotion to religious (specifically Jewish and Muslim) life has grown over the past forty years. The percentage of Israelis and Palestinians who consider themselves to be Orthodox Jewish or Islamist has remained a relatively small minority; perhaps 20-25% of the population. These numbers, however, have become more significant, and there are a number of factors for this development.
Although both Judaism and Islam have strong theopolitical traditions, religious observance through much of the twentieth century tended to be mostly personal. The political and sociological pressures of modernity, and particularly, of nationalism, had tended to push religion out of the public square. This circumstance had been especially true for conservative religion which tended to focus on individual devotion and spiritual purity as protection in an irredeemably immoral world.
We are well aware that toward the end of the century, conservative religion began to move outside its personal shell, and began to take its place as an influence in public debates. The twin— and perhaps coincidental—phenomena of the Iranian Revolution and the emergence of the Moral Majority as part of Ronald Reagan’s decisive presidential victory, heralded the change. The public religious message (both in the U.S. and throughout the Middle East) has been that some perceived moral waywardness in the society had to be stemmed. While religious devotion and observance might not have increased, the message could be popular beyond a core base, especially when there has been a perception of economic stagnation or of governmental corruption. Religious leadership carries a sense of purity with respect to an aura of incorruptibility, and a basically populist message that derides the expertise of so-called academic or professional elites. The success of Hamas among Palestinians is a clear example of this combination of anti-corruption and populism.
In Israel, the dynamic has been somewhat different. From the founding of the State through the Six-Day War and its aftermath, the Labor Coalition maintained a powerful grip on the electorate. Labor’s popularity was first assaulted by the trauma of the Yom Kippur War in 1973. Israel’s ultimate victory came at the cost of relatively high losses in personnel and equipment, particularly in the first few days of the Egyptian attack. A combination of ill will brought about by perceived government failures regarding that war, a minor financial scandal and the sheer longevity of Labor’s rule, led to ultimate defeat. In 1977, a coalition made up of nationalists and free market proponents, Likud, won a plurality of the seats in a general election. Under long-time leader Menachem Begin, the right-wing parties created a government that won re-election in 1981.
Likud’s predominance began to fade, particularly after the fallout from Israel’s incursion into Lebanon in the summer of 1982. When elections were called in 1984, the two major parties were virtually equal. A power-sharing arrangement was set, but the divergent attitudes regarding foreign policy and the disposition of the territories inevitably pushed such a coalition apart. In order to create ruling governments, both sides turned to the ‘religious parties,’ particular the ultra-Orthodox United Torah and Shas parties [the latter represents Sephardi interests]. Although there was a pronounced reaction in 2003, to Orthodox influence that pushed the religious parties out of the ruling coalition, their roles as power brokers in the nation’s severe political split has begun to grow again.
Militant vs. Mediating Religion
Is religion an impediment toward creating a stable peace in the Middle East? I do not believe so. The brief against religion includes both the appearance of militant Islam and an association of intense Israeli nationalism with Orthodox Judaism. This is true, but it is also a rather small percentage of the populations on both sides of the line. One does not need religion in order to have ‘religious certainty.’
A much more important discussion regards what religious tradition brings to bear on the conflict. Many observers assume that Jewish dedication to the Land is based on the biblical narrative that describes God’s promise to Israel. This consideration represents a very superficial understanding of Jewish thought. For the most part, the divine promise is highly qualified. Israel’s hold on the Land is dependent not on strength of force or military security, but rather on internal justice. Post-biblical literature after the destruction of the second Temple is even more ambivalent. Thus, the most vociferous opponents to the State of Israel are also among the most fervently Orthodox Jews.
The Muslim attitude is equally ambiguous. There is no Muslim literature that refers to promised or sacred land. Of greater concern is the Muslim principle of the ‘ummah, the community of believers. This concept tends to privilege the hegemony of any place with a significant Muslim population. It is also a point in which religion and politics become intertwined. In domains such as the Indian sub-continent, Muslim and non-Muslim communities (Hindu and Buddhist) have negotiated arrangements that respected each other’s practices and beliefs. In brief, Islam does not demand control or domination of any parcel of land, assuming that land is ruled (by whatever authority) with justice.
Religious expression, particularly appeals to God in houses of worship that the ‘enemy’ be smite down, is nevertheless widespread. It is, for the most part, the appearance of religion given over to a primal sense of militancy, in which, inevitably, both sides are the victims in search of divine justice! Yet, there are also powerful counter-messages of showing compassion even to one’s enemies. Jewish and Muslim Arab groups regularly engage in outreach efforts to the other side as part of a religious imperative, even as they might insist on a maximalist solution.
In the final analysis, religious observance has become the source of profound contradictory attitudes and actions. As a very apt example, Hamas remains unalterably opposed to the continued existence of the Jewish State. At the same time, it has been mostly careful about maintaining a cease-fire with Israel. (Indeed, there has been more violence between Hamas and Fatah in recent months.)
Possibilities and Impasses
The outline of a final peace solution is pretty clear. It is roughly the borders that existed on June 4, 1967. Already the international boundary between Israel and Egypt has been restored, and the Gaza Strip, while not being returned to Egypt, has been removed from Israeli oversight. The Golan Heights continue to be offered as a bargaining chip. When serious negotiations were being carried on in the late 1990s, most Israeli experts noted that, with proper security agreements in place, the Heights no longer represented a serious strategic location for either Syria or Israel. Even Jerusalem, which has been dramatically altered over the past forty years by the creation of new Jewish neighborhoods in what was West Bank territory, remains functionally divided into Arab and Jewish sections. With some careful and creative urban planning, the city could formally be parceled out between Israel and a Palestinian State. Much more serious negotiations are required to re-establish the borders that used to define the West Bank, but the indicators of a workable solution are in place.
We know where ‘A’ is (the current occupation), and roughly where ‘B’ is (a realistic negotiated settlement). The daunting problem remains: getting from ‘A’ to ‘B’. An Israeli scholar, Moshe Habertal, put it this way in a recent lecture: Polls have consistently shown that about 60% of both Israelis and Palestinians would accept a settlement roughly along the lines of 1967 Green Line. About 80% of that 60%, however, does not believe that the other side exists!”
The confrontation between Israel and the Arabs has come full circle to the circumstances leading up to June 1967. I mean by this more than a realization that the original armistice borders of the State of Israel represent a reasonable basis for an enduring settlement. The path to an equitable solution is fraught with such potential impasses that there is at least as much likelihood of further violence as there is for the creation of enduring peace. After all, no one—Israel, Egypt, Syria or Jordan—wanted there to be a full-scale war. They acted cautiously and defensively throughout 1966-early 1967. And yet war occurred.
Since then, there have been three significant military engagements and two violent uprisings: Yom Kippur (1973), Lebanon (1982), the first intifada (1988), the second intifada (2000-02), and Lebanon again (2006). [Only the Yom Kippur War, however, involved a full mobilization of armies.] In between these flashpoints, guerilla raids, terrorist attacks, suicide bombings, rocket strikes and retaliations have continued virtually unabated. This state of affairs has been absolutely miserable for the Palestinians, and none too good for the Israelis.
Giant Steps Backward
First, the Palestinians. During the years of the Oslo process, while the Israeli economy grew at an annual rate in the double-digits, the Palestinian economy shrunk dramatically. This circumstance took place even as institutions such as the European Union poured billions of dollars into the Gaza and West Bank in order to facilitate the creation of an economically viable Palestinian State.
Part of the problem was due to a shift in Israel’s economy. Recognizing that West Bank and Gaza Palestinians were going to be engaged in their own nation, Israelis began to reduce its dependence on Palestinian day labor (predominant in construction and agriculture) in favor of importing workers from Southeast Asia and elsewhere. The territories, however, could not absorb the excess labor. Corruption, weak leadership, the absence of planning, an inflexible social order—what have you—all contributed to making the situation worse. I have always felt that the intifada that erupted in September 2000— ostensibly in reaction to Ariel Sharon’s show of force on the Temple Mount—arose in good measure as a result of the intense frustration felt by average Palestinians to the strides backward that had occurred through the years of negotiating that ultimately ended up with nothing.
Yet, as bad as the Palestinians had it in 2000, it has only become worse. Investments and foreign aid has been reduced, particularly after the Hamas victory in January 2006. A virtual civil war between supporters of Hamas and of Fatah (the old PLO) has been patched up in a very fragile agreement mediated by Saudi Arabia. Nevertheless, Palestinians have a much better chance being killed or injured by another Palestinian than by an Israeli.
Israelis have fared much better than the Palestinians over the past forty years, but it has hardly been all sweetness and light. The administration of the territories has continued to be monumentally difficult, draining both morale and material resources. Although the U.S. has been consistently supportive and generally sympathetic to Israel’s situation, the Jewish State has had to endure regular condemnation from much of the world’s community of nations, at best, and outright isolation, at worst, for its ongoing occupation.
Over thirty years ago, an Orthodox rabbi (whose politics are moderate tending toward conservative) responded to a question about territorial compromise following the Yom Kippur War with the observation that “it is obvious that Israel cannot afford to lose a war; it should also be clear that Israel cannot afford to fight one either.” This has turned out to be a prophetic insight. While it has be demonstrated with every military encounter since the 1948 War of Independence that Israel is the dominant force in the Middle East, each clash since the Six-Day War has been profoundly upsetting emotionally and politically.
No ruling government, regardless of its apparent success in overcoming one attack or another, has been able to survive very long afterward. The Yom Kippur War greatly compromised the Labor government. Menachem Begin retired, and Likud soon lost control after the 1982 incursion into Lebanon. Likud was shaken again by the first intifada, and Ehud Barak’s Labor coalition fell with the second one. Now, Prime Minister Olmert is profoundly unpopular following last summer’s ‘rocket war.’
With each of these instances of violence (the last real “war” was in 1973, when Israel had to engage in a full mobilization of its forces), Israel endured relatively few casualties—particularly when compared to the other side—and short term setbacks to its economy. Yet, the costs in international standing, political stability, and any sense of well-being has been enormous. Over the past forty years—the past sixty years!—Israel’s existential security has not been seriously challenged; its psychic security, however, has taken a beating.
A Way Forward
The Six-Day War and its forty year aftermath is the very definition of paradox and irony. It was the war that no one wanted. It has been loss and humiliation for its losers; pain and isolation for its winner. One is reminded of the end of the classic 1980s film, War Games. The supercomputer is bringing the world closer to nuclear destruction, when it is convinced that the only way one can win that game is not to play at all.
The game, however, is being played. The paradoxes that assign misery to both winners and losers need to be overcome in some other fashion. Remember the barber’s paradox presented at the beginning of this essay? The only way to solve that dilemma was to question the veracity of the original premise (that there is a barber who shaves all those who do not shave themselves). This is no barber.
Israeli military and diplomatic policy has tended to operate on the assumption that there is a Palestinian entity that is capable of eliminating the Jewish State. This is Israel’s barber. It does not exist.
Are there Palestinians who fervently wish for the disappearance of Israel? Obviously there are. With Qassam missiles reigning down in the neighborhood of Sderot; with the ongoing potential of terror attacks, Israeli lives and property continue to be in danger, as they have been since the founding of the State. What is not in danger is the existence of the State itself.
The Israeli government—whichever party or ideology is in power—is obligated to do what it can in order to protect the lives and livelihood of its citizens. As long as there are cross-border attacks, there is going to some type of response. Yet, it is critical to recognize that no Palestinian attack will actually threaten the Jewish State, and further, that the only ones who can definitively bring these attacks to a halt are the Palestinians themselves! While internal politics will always dictate a response to attack, anything more severe than a greatly restrained retaliation is almost certainly counter-productive.
Is peace possible? Of course it is! Although it is probably in a more distant future than anyone wishes, the path to peace has already been drawn. The method to moving down that path is threefold:
Confidence—Israel is simply not operating under any serious external danger. Incidents, whether suicide bombs, Hizb’allah or Hamas missiles—however upsetting—should never be exaggerated into something that resembles a threat to the Jewish State.
Negotiations—For sixty years, Palestinians killed as a result of attacks on Israel have died thoroughly meaningless deaths. Not one bomb, rocket or rifle shot has brought them any closer to their vision of a Greater Palestine, or even to a return of the 1967 boundaries. The violence option has proven to be no option at all. Nothing positive will happen until both sides sit down to talk.
Realism—At the end of the day, Israel, whatever the contours of its international borders—returning precisely to the lines of June 4, 1967, or (far more probably) some trade-off of West Bank and northern Negev territory, or something else—the Jewish State will find itself in the midst of a large Arab population. Even before any steps are taken regarding a final peace agreement, Israel must take clear and definitive steps to assure the civil rights of its own Arab citizens, as well as find ways to treat the Palestinians more as neighbors than as enemies.
World War I formally began with the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand in mid-August 1914. An armistice was signed on November 11, 1918, but many historians have suggested that the war really did not end until almost exactly seventy-one years later—November 9, 1989—when the Berlin Wall was breached.
A battle between Israel and the armies of Egypt, Syria, Jordan and Iraq began in the early morning hours of June 5, 1967. A cease-fire agreement was concluded six days later. In reality, we all know that the war has continued virtually unabated for the past forty years. We all look forward to the day when the Six-Day War is finally over.